2016 was a rough year in so many ways, but at least I was able to comfort myself with some outstanding books. The best of these of course, were reviewed on the blog and, after careful deliberation, I think I can settle on my top reads of 2016
One of the first books I reviewed in 2016, ‘Citizen‘ feels more relevant than ever as we finish a year of crisis and political upheaval. ‘Citizen’ explores identity in modern America, unpicking the personal and public cost of institutionalised racism. At the start of the year, it was an important call against complacency and passive acceptance of the status quo. As we start 2017, it is, more than ever, an important book for emphasising common humanity in the face of indifference, isolation and fear.
‘The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands‘ has been a firm favourite all year. It traces the many incidents in the life of Mary Seacole, from her upbringing in Jamaica, to her business ventures in the Caribbean, to her experiences as a hotelier and nurse in Panama, with the apex of the story coming when she set off to provide aid to British soldiers during the Crimean war. Seacole originally wanted to join Florence Nightingale’s nurses; you’ll have to read for yourself to find out what she accomplished at Balaclava, but after reading her memoir she is now one of my favourite historical figures – and probably the author from the past I would most like to meet!
It is so hard to describe ‘Dreams and Stones‘, charting as it does the life of a city rather than of people. Enigmatic, mystical and utterly enthralling, Magdalena Tulli has created a book like no other I’ve ever read. The city is traced from its mythical beginnings through Soviet inflected optimism and into disillusioned decay. Symbols emerge, are owned and then subverted. All I can do is urge everyone to try this book, it’s short, it’s powerful, and it may have overtaken ‘Invisible Cities’ as my all time favourite novel of the city.
The book I have probably recommended the most this year (on and off the blog) is ‘My Name is Leon‘ by Kit de Waal. The story, dealing with neglect and adoption, might be a hard sell, but the narrative is so convincing and rings with such authenticity that I really think everyone should read it. Written in the third person, but from the young Leon’s point of view, this is the best book about fostering I’ve read since falling in love with Jacqueline Wilson’s ‘Tracey Beaker’. Unsentimental and with a fine eye for detail, ‘My Name is Leon’ had me both crying in public and laughing out loud.
Oh, how I love ‘The Enchanted April‘ by Elizabeth Von Arnim. It’s the perfect holiday read, and also the perfect escapist read if you can’t go on holiday. I know I’m not alone in feeling like this, and one of the joys of discovering it has been reading the other adoring reviews popping up all over WordPress as the word spreads. Once again, I’m going to have to leave the review to Von Arnim herself and revert to the passage (quoted more fully in my review) ‘How beautiful, how beautiful. Not to have died before this … to have been allowed to see, breathe, feel this …’ the modern world can be such a scary place; books like ‘The Enchanted April’ are essential, escapist reading.
When I embarked on my non-fiction reading challenge for 2016, I had no idea that not one, but two of the biographies it included would make it into my top books of the year. ‘Wild Swans‘ is just as good as everyone had always lead me to believe and has given me a new interest in a region and history about which I was woefully ignorant. Who knows, perhaps Chinese literature could become a future project to rival 2015’s Russian reading? Even if not, I will always have my well-thumbed edition of ‘Wild Swans’ – a truly wonderful read.
Carlos Gamerro’s ‘Adventures of the busts of Eva Peron‘ is so hard to do justice to in a stub review. I suppose the basic premise is that Ernesto Maronné is a modern day Don Quixote, only rather than becoming a romantic knight errant, he dreams of being the platonic ideal of the modern executive. Armed with management self-help books and indomitable sincerity, he is on a mission to save his boss who has been taken hostage by Peronist rebels. The CEO will be returned (almost) unharmed, if Maronné can source ninety-two busts of Eva, one for each room in the organisation. This is just the premise you understand, the madcap adventures that follow serve to take things further away from what you might ever expect and closer and closer to pure brilliance.
Last year Sara Taylor’s ‘The Shore’ had an assured place on my best of 2015 reading round-up. This year, ‘The Lauras‘ more than lived up to my incredibly high expectations for Taylor’s latest novel. Following a mother and teenager across America, ‘The Lauras’ is about story-telling and maturity, about identity and about belonging. By the time I came to write my review, nearly every page on my kindle was highlighted with quotations to share. Needless to say, my final review could only touch on a few of the elements that made this book so special. I do look forward to re-reading it though, and discovering still more joys. Without a doubt, one of the top publications of 2016, and a must read for anyone who loved ‘The Shore’
I had no idea how long ‘The Dream of Red Mansions‘ was when I started the first volume. Soon, of course, I realised it didn’t matter – frankly, the longer the better because there are very few places I would rather spend my time than in Cao Xueqin’s wonderful epic of 18th century Chinese life. Set within a restrictive family estate and dealing nearly entirely with the privileged women who live there, the novel manages to provide the most engaging, empowering and humanising presentation of childhood and maturity that I think I have ever read. My own reading adolescence was spent deep in long Victorian novels. A part of me is so sad that I didn’t know of ‘The Dream of Red Mansions’ then; an even bigger part of me is determined to proselyte so that all readers of my acquaintance know of this world classic.
Last year, my top books were very dark, with lots of gothic novels and a tendency towards horror. This year very different books have caught my eye, but the final addition to my top-reads list is a demented tale of obsession and pain – so well within my traditional comfort zone! ‘The Piano Teacher‘ takes a claustrophobic nest of characters, each living out their own fantasies. The forces of domination and submission form the core of the central relationships and the power of the narrative is at points almost unreadable. Counterbalancing this is the fact that the book is pretty much impossible to put down. Rarely has madness been so well written.
Finally, I mostly only write about first-time reads on the blog, but a real highlight of the year was discovering the genius of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. An English masterpiece, this is a book everyone should read and if, like me, you’ve read it before and didn’t love it, 2017 is the perfect time to try again!
It hasn’t been easy paring down my list to a mere top ten (plus 1) books, and there are many many others that very nearly made the final cut. As for me, I’m off to complete one of my new year’s resolutions (be better at keeping up with other people’s blogs for recommendations) and I’m already excited about some of the great novels I’ll be reviewing in 2017.